For countless decades scientists have relied on the lowly fruit fly, aka Drosophila melanogaster, because its simplicity makes it an ideal organism for studying genetics. But counting, sorting, and analyzing fruit flies is such a terribly tedious task that Stanford has actually taken the time to build a robot that can do it all automatically.
The $5,000 machine was developed by a team led by Mark Schnitzer, an associate professor of biology and applied physics at Stanford, and it has been described as a miniature UFO that hovers over its targets, just waiting to make an abduction.
When it’s time to grab a fruit fly, the robot briefly shines an invisible infrared light on its target. The light reflects off the fly’s thorax, making it visible to the robot’s camera which can individually recognize each one based on the unique pattern that’s reflected. To actually grab a single fly the robot then extends a tiny suction tube to safely latch onto the animal’s torso. The process is so precise and gentle that the flies are completely awake when they’re being grabbed and studied, no anesthesia is needed.
The robot picker not only works faster than a human can, grabbing over 1,000 flies over a 10-hour period, it’s also able to visually inspect each fruit fly using subtle details that the human eye can’t see. It’s able to analyze and denote every fly’s physical attributes, sort them by sex, and even perform dissections on their tiny brains. And as the robot is further developed, it will also be able to autonomously perform experiments on fruit flies, freeing up grad students and interns to better spend their time fetching coffee and lunch.